When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited London this week, he was expecting the kind of red carpet treatment befitting the leader of a world power who was scheduled to announce billions of pounds of trade deals.
However, after receiving the plans for Mr Li’s arrival, Beijing registered a complaint with Downing St because the red carpet being rolled out for the Chinese head of government at Heathrow airport was not up to scratch.
According to two officials involved in preparing the visit, China expressed concern that the red carpet from the steps of Mr Li’s aircraft to a VIP holding area was not long enough. “They saw a diagram of the arrangements at Heathrow and complained that the carpet was three metres too short,” said one official.
The complaint was lodged with Ed Llewellyn, David Cameron’s chief of staff, who is said to have told the Chinese official he had other things to worry about. “He said that he was sure the carpet would meet their requirements,” said the official, whose account was corroborated by several other people involved in organising the visit.
China was also reported to have threatened to cancel the visit if Mr Li were not allowed to meet the Queen – an honour usually reserved for heads of state. The meeting went ahead, but publicity around the incident drew a frosty response in Beijing.
Most countries are punctilious about the fine details of protocol around any overseas visit by a head of government or a head of state. But China’s concern about the Heathrow red carpet seems at odds with recent Communist party strictures designed to make its officials seem more humble and less concerned about the trappings of office.
Perhaps the most prominent policy of the current Chinese administration since it officially took power in March last year has been its campaign against “formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance”.
In December 2012, the Communist party published its “eight point regulations”, the first of which specifically bans red carpets, welcome banners, floral arrangements and grand receptions for Chinese officials travelling domestically on official business.
The fourth of eight regulations requires officials travelling overseas to restrict the size of their delegations and avoid large receptions at the airport on their arrival.
In a written statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said: “The British side closely co-ordinated with the Chinese side in the reception organisation and visit results, took the initiative in making considerate arrangements and made great efforts to ensure the full success of Premier Li’s visit. The Chinese side expresses its appreciation.”
Downing St refused to comment on the red carpet incident, but one official said “the size of the business deals” discussed during the visit – about ￡18bn in total – were of more importance.
On the second day of Mr Li’s visit, a Chinese newspaper controlled by the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, derided Britain as a “narrow-minded”, “prejudiced”, “petty” “declining empire”.
Sino-British relations are particularly sensitive to Chinese leaders because of a legacy of gunboat diplomacy, colonialism and opium wars in which the UK is regarded as the chief culprit.
While this history is not widely studied in the UK, virtually every Chinese schoolchild can recite the atrocities and outrages imposed on China by Britain during the “century of humiliation” that predated “liberation” by the Communist party in 1949.
中方向英国首相戴维?卡梅伦(David Cameron)的幕僚长黎伟略(Ed Llewellyn)提交了抱怨，据说后者告诉中国官员，他还有其他事情要操心。上述英国官员表示：“黎伟略说，他确信红地毯将符合中方要求。”这一说法得到了其他多名参与接待安排的人士的证实。